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Topics covered:

bulletPast conflicts
bulletWhat the constitution prohibits
bulletWhat the constitution allows and requires
bulletEnforcing religious rights
bulletFactors to consider about school prayer
bulletLandmark court decisions
bulletRelated essays
bulletSources of additional information

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Many people honestly believe that prayer is not allowed in the public schools. This is wrong. Unfortunately, this mistaken notion sometimes extends to teachers, principals and school boards.

Students have many opportunities to pray:

bulletThey can attend one of the over 350,000 places of worship in the United States, which promote "every conceivable creed, sect and denomination." 6
bulletPrayer is allowed -- and in fact is a protected form of free speech -- throughout the public school system. Students can pray in school busses, at the flag-pole, in student religious clubs, in the hallways, cafeteria, etc.
bulletIf the school has as few as one extra-curricular student-led and student-organized group, then students have a legal right to organize a Bible or other religious club to meet outside of classroom time.

Yet, a great deal of effort is being expended by religious folks to require prayer in the classroom. Some reasons may be:

bulletSunday school and other religious instruction of young people within the houses of worship in the U.S. and Canada has largely collapsed. Percentage attendance is a small fraction of what it was two generations ago.
bulletSome adults believe that to start the school day with a prayer will create an aura of solemnity and order among the students.
bulletOthers believe that prayer has magical powers. It will persuade God to protect the school and its staff and students. They may believe that prayer would have a beneficial influence on drug problems, school violence, teen pregnancy, etc.
bulletOthers feel that if the students are forced to recite a Christian prayer each day, they will come to realize that they live in a Christian country where the government and its institutions support Christianity.

The one place where prayer is not normally permitted is in the classroom itself when a class is in session. The latter would violate the principle of church-state separation which is defined by court interpretations of the 1st Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The separation principle is extended to Public Schools as an arm of the government. As interpreted by the courts, the Constitution's First Amendment requires that public school teachers, principals, and boards be religiously neutral:

bulletThey may not promote a particular religion as being superior to any other.
bulletThey may not promote religion in general as superior to a secular approach to life.
bulletThey may not promote secularism in general as superior to a religious approach to life.
bulletThey may not be antagonistic to religion in general or a particular religious belief in particular.
bulletThey may not be antagonistic to secularism.
bulletThey must neither advance nor inhibit religion.

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Past conflicts:

There has been a long history of conflict over school prayer. During the 19th century, there were continual conflicts between Protestants and Catholics over which version of the Bible was to be used in schools. During the 20th century, there were conflicts over the precise text of school prayers. "In New York, a committee of the State Regents actually tried to invent a 'nondenominational, nonsectarian' prayer that would presumably offend no one (save Atheist or nonreligious families) and still have the effect of appealing to an unspecified deity.

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What the constitution prohibits:

The law, as interpreted by various levels of courts, is rapidly evolving in this area. Speaking very generally, the law prohibits public schools from:

bulletRequiring students to recite prayers in class. The main concerns of the courts appear to be twofold:
bulletThe compulsive nature of prayer. Although most state laws which attempt to allow school prayer usually permit the student to excuse themselves and wait in the hall, the courts still see an element of compulsion. By separating themselves from the rest of the class, the student risks later harassment and abuse by fellow students.
bulletThe risk of religious indoctrination. The 1st amendment of the U.S. constitution states that there shall be no law regarding the establishment of religion. The courts view prayer in the classroom to be one example of the government approving one religion over another. Even a student-selected, student-given, non-sectarian, non-proselytizing prayer still carries with it the stamp of approval of the state - i.e. the state approves of, and is seen to promote, belief in God (and whatever other religious content that the prayer might have).

The US Supreme Court ruled against mandated daily school prayer in Engel v. Vitale (1962). In 1963, it struck down laws in Pennsylvania and Maryland which mandated Bible reading and prayer.

bulletPublic prayers at high school games: Various courts have ruled that:
bulletAn individual student or group of students is free to pray at a game. To prevent this would violate the student(s) free speech rights.
bulletTeachers, coaches, etc. cannot lead a group prayer. To do so would be viewed as school endorsement of a specific religion, which is unconstitutional under the principle of separation of church and state.
bulletStudent-led, student written public prayers are not permitted to be part of a game format. i.e. the school officials cannot insert a prayer into the schedule of a game, even if the actual prayer is led by a student. More details on this topic.
bulletPromoting any one denomination or religion at the expense of another faith group or secular philosophy. For example, a comparative religion class must give a balanced description of religious and secular beliefs from a variety of faith groups and ethical systems.
bulletBanning the wearing of religious clothing and symbols.
This seems to be a growing problem throughout the U.S. In general, children do not abandon their religious rights when entering public school campuses. Religious clothing and symbols, if not disruptive, are a protected form of speech.  More details on this topic.  
bulletPrayers before Board of Education meetings:
The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of appeals decided on 1999-MAR-18 that the Board of Education in Cleveland, OH, cannot pray before their meetings. The court ruled that prayers are an illegal endorsement of religion. School board attorneys have not decided whether they will appeal the case to the U.S. Supreme Court. 1
bullet"Clergy in the Schools" project: A panel of the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled on 1999-APR-16 that a Texas "Clergy in the Schools" program is unconstitutional. The Beaumont Independent School District introduced this program in 1996. Local clergy led group counseling discussions in the school about morality and civic virtues . The students involved in the counseling were selected by school officials without prior notice to, or consent form, the parents. Prayer and discussion of religion, sex or abortion were not permitted. The clergy were not allowed to identify their church affiliation. Secular counselors were not permitted. The majority opinion of the panel was that the program "makes a clear statement that it favors religion over nonreligion." They were also concerned that the clergy were disproportionately Protestants. The found that the involvement of school officials in this project created an "excessive entanglement" between church and state.  

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What the constitution allows:

Again, this is in a state of flux. As of early 1999, the following activities are permitted. In fact, they are more than allowed. They are constitutionally protected as freedom of speech, religion and assembly rights:

bulletGraduation ceremonies: Some invocations, benedictions and prayers at graduation ceremonies. This is very much a gray area as far as court rulings is concerned. More details.
bulletTeaching religion: The positive and negative effects of religion on society may be studied in history, literature, comparative religion, and other courses. Comparative religion classes are allowed, as long as one religion is not presented as being superior to any another, or as absolute truth. Bible study is allowed, as long as the texts from other religions are also studied. Schools can communicate the broad field of religion but not indoctrinate their students in a particular faith.
bulletStudent religious clubs: If the school receives federal funds, then it must obey the federal Equal Access Act of 1984. Students are free to organize Bible study and other religious special interest clubs if any other secular clubs are allowed. The school may prohibit religious clubs, but only if it prohibits all student groups. Religious clubs must be given the same access to school facilities (space to meet, permission to advertise on school bulletin boards, permission to have announcements read over the PA system, inclusion in the year book, etc.) as do other clubs. Group meetings must be "voluntary and student initiated." There must be no "sponsorship" of the meetings by the school. "Non-school persons may not direct, conduct, control, or regularly attend" the activities. One effect of this law is the flourishing of Christian clubs in public schools. The American Civil Liberties Union estimates that 10,000 Christian clubs are operating in U.S. high schools. More information
bulletMoment of silence: Having students engage in a moment of silence during which they can pray, meditate, plan their day, or engage in any other silent mental activity. In late 2000, a federal court affirmed the constitutionality of the moment of silence law which came into effect in Virginia on 2000-APR-1. The decision is under appeal by the ACLU. The Natural Law Project promotes this alternative. 4
bulletPrayer outside of school building: Students can organize prayers on school property outside the classroom. e.g. they can conduct group prayer meetings at the school flagpole.
bulletSchool religious speech: Students can carry Bible or other religious texts to and in school. They can pray before eating. A student can pray on the school bus, in the cafeteria, in classrooms before and after class, in the corridors, in the washrooms, etc. They can wear T-shirts with religious text. They can wear religious jewelry (buttons, symbols). They can hand out religious materials. They can freely talk about religion to fellow students, outside of class. They can pray before eating in the cafeteria. These are well-known freedoms guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. Yet not everyone is aware of these forms of protected speech. Bill Keane's cartoon "Family Circus" for 1999-NOV-15 shows a mother waving at two children leaving the house. She says "Get to school safely."  The caption reads "Chances are they will as long as they're allowed to pray on that old school bus."
bulletRental of school facilities: Many religious organizations rent school facilities after hours. Past court decisions generally supported this right, if rooms are also rented to secular groups. Court rulings specified that schools can refuse to rent to religious groups, but then they cannot rent to outside secular organizations as well. However, recent court decisions have split on this issue.
bulletTeaching of evolution: Schools may require their teachers to explain evolution as a scientific theory, as supported by 95% of scientists. This would include teachers who might not believe evolution to be true because of their personal religious grounds.
bulletTeacher display of religion: Teachers may be prohibited from displaying a Bible on their desk or from placing religious posters on the classroom wall. This would imply state support for a specific religion.

In summary, the law guarantees students' fundamental religious freedoms while requiring the school to maintain a religiously neutral environment. Sometimes the latter requires some limitations on teachers' freedoms. A 1996-JUN court decision by the US District Court for the Northern District of Mississippi covers many of the above items, including prayer over a school-wide intercom, a pre-school religious group, classroom prayer, teaching a Bible class and religious instruction in a history class. The text of the court order is also available on the Internet.

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Enforcing religious rights:

Even though many religious behaviors are protected by the Constitution, they are not necessarily allowed by the teacher, school principal or school board. Sometimes, they have to be fought for.

A small percentage of public school teachers and principals have interpreted the constitution incorrectly. Some have:

bulletforbidden a student from reading a Bible in the school bus.
bulletforbidden a student from praying before a meal in the cafeteria.
bulletrefused to accept a student history essay on the life of an historical figure because the essay described Jesus.
bulletrefused to allow a Bible study group to be organized by students, while permitting political, philosophical, science and other special interest groups.

Such infringements on a student's religious freedom are clearly unconstitutional, and based on ignorance of the law by the teacher, principal and/or school board. The US Supreme Court has ruled that students' rights do not stop at the school door. Such disputes are usually resolved when the school is informed of student's rights. Many Christian litigation groups are actively involved in such resolutions. The Rutherford Institute 3 is believed to be the largest such organization. They have stated: "Many cases can be solved with a strong and professional letter from an attorney, a legal memorandum from our office, or a phone call from a staff member." Although it is a conservative Christian group, they occasionally take on cases which support the rights of non-Christians.

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Factors to Consider About School Prayer:

This topic generates a great deal more heat than light. A number of points are might be considered concerning prayer and other religious activities in public classrooms:

bulletContrary to generally held belief, prayer is not forbidden in public schools. A student can come early to class, sit quietly, and pray silently. Similarly, with some discipline, a student can pray upon rising, as a family before leaving home, even (if they can concentrate over the noise) in a school bus, in the cafeteria, etc.
bulletIf students are allowed to organize any type of extra-curricular group, such as a science club or political club, then they are free to organize religious or prayer groups. The federal "equal access" law requires this of all school districts that receive federal funding. They may hold their meetings on school property, advertise their group, etc. to the same extent as non-religious student groups.
bulletStudents do not leave their constitutional rights at the door of the school: they can wear clothing that promotes a specific religion or denomination; they can discuss the religious aspects of a topic in class, etc.
bulletThere is a sizable minority of parents (and by implication, children) who follow other than Christian religions or who follow no religion at all. They find a state-sponsored Christian prayer to be deeply offensive, and an attack on their freedom of religion.
bulletMany deeply Christian and other religious parents and children who pray regularly regard enforced, state written prayers to be deeply offensive and a violation of fundamental human rights.
bulletSome jurisdictions have allowed objecting students to leave the room and thus be excused from reciting a prayer. However, this action subjects the students to harassment by their peers.
bulletTo require students to recite a Christian prayer implies state recognition of Christianity as a religion of special status in the country. This is interpreted by many that religions other than Christianity are of inferior status. That promotes conflict among faith groups and intolerance towards minority religions.
bulletAttempting to decide what prayers should be used can result in inter-denominational conflict among Christians. More conservative groups might ask for prayers which deal with sin, Satan, Hell and the necessity of being saved. Mainstream groups may want to write prayers which emphasize the love of God and responsibilities to one's fellow humans.
bulletThe freedom for parents and a school system to require children to recite a state-written prayer conflicts with the rights of parents and students who wish freedom from compulsory prayer. Some jurisdictions have reached various compromises that balance the rights and desires of opposing groups:
bulletSome schools institute a moment of silence that students can use to pray silently, or meditate, or simply center themselves.
bulletMost schools allow any interested students to gather outside the classroom in the school to pray as a group.
bulletIn Canada, some school systems have a list of prayers drawn from a variety of religions that are found in the state or province. These prayers are read in sequence by a volunteer. Students are not required to recite the words; they can simply remain silent. This approach has a valuable educational component. Students learn a little about many religions. They realize that there are many different religions in the world and that society recognizes that all have worth.

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Landmark decisions concerning religion in the public schools:

bullet1948: The U.S. Supreme Court  struck down religious instruction in public schools in their McCollum v. Board of Education decision.
bullet1954: The Supreme Court let stand a lower court ruling,  Tudor v.  Board of Education against the distribution of Bibles by outside groups like the Gideons.
bullet1960: Madalyn Murray O'Hair sued the Baltimore MD school system on behalf of her son William J Murray, because he was being forced to participate in prayer in schools.
bullet1962: The Supreme Court, in Engel v. Vitale, disallowed a government-composed, nondenominational "Regents" prayer which was recited by students .
bullet1963: In a number of major decisions (Murray v. Curlett; Abington Township School district v. Schempp) mandatory Bible verse recitation was ruled unconstitutional.
bullet2001: A decision is expected by 2001-JUN from the U.S. Supreme Court in a curious case involving the rental of school facilities. A Fundamentalist Christian group was refused permission to rent school facilities. The policy is to rent rooms for "social, civic, and recreational meetings and entertainment events and other uses," but not to religious groups. It seems like such an open and shut case: the school must rent to all groups or none, and cannot discriminate on the basis of religion. But the federal trial judge and the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals both ruled against the club.

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  1. Religion Today news summary, 1999-MAR-19.
  2. ACLU Newsfeed, 1999-NOV-5.
  3. Rutherford Institute has a web page at: http://www.rutherford.org/  
  4. Natural Prayer Project is available at:
    bulletEmail: naturalprayer@earthlink.net  
    bulletWebsite: http://www.naturalprayer.com 
    bulletPhone: 1-800-209-9929 (US only)
    bulletFax: (619) 573-0752
  5. Dave Clark, "Dallas schools attempt church ouster," at: http://www.family.org/cforum/fnif/news/A0013582.html
  6. "New prayer guides from D. of E. push religion, threaten school funding," American Atheists AANews, 2003-FEB-11.

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Copyright 1995 to 2003 incl. by the Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Created 1995-APR-27

Last updated 2003-FEB-12
Author: B.A. Robinson

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